While it's not rare these days for sequels to outperform their predecessors at the box-office, it's rare for sequels to outshine the in artistic and entertainment values. Spider-Man 2, the most pleasurable big-summer movie, qualifies on both accounts. It's a better and more enjoyable picture than the first one.
What sets Spider-Man 2 apart from Spider-Man and other movies based on technology is its attention to characterization. Though using state-of-the-art CGI, Spider-Man 2 is an actioner that refuses to be intimidated or overwhelmed by them.
Spider-Man made its first appearance in 1962, in the last issue of the then failing comic book, Amazing Fantasy. The character made such an immediate impression that the comic book was renamed Amazing Spider-Man and reappeared in March 1963. Since then, it has become a household name worldwide, evolving into one of the most popular superheroes.
It's usually not a compliment to describe a film as offering something for everyone, but Spider-Man 2 does: adventure for the young viewers, romance for the adolescent and twentysomething crowd, and mad scientists and experiments gone awry for the sci-fi-horror aficionados.
In this tale, two years have passed since the heartbreaking farewell between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). A successful actress, Mary Jane is now engaged to an astronaut, who's no other than the son of Peter's editor.
Peter had been fired from his pizza delivery job, for being late, and from the Daily Bugle, for not taking enough photos of Spider-Man, whose identity is still a mystery. On top of that, his Columbia University professor threatens to flunk him for not doing his papers. To make things worse, Peter believes that he has caused the tragic events in Aunt May's life: the death of her husband and the foreclosure of her house. There are also strains in his friendship with Harry Osborn (James Franco), who holds Peter responsible for the death of his father, the Green Goblin.
Peter's desperate search to achieve balance in his life is futile. The more immersed he becomes in his personal dilemma, the greater the rift between him and the important people around.
With so many headaches, what's a decent boy to do He adopts a new role model, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). Nicknamed by the media Doc Ock, here's a scientist who has managed a successful career in fusion research and a happy marriage to a poetry-reading wife. However, later on, when a crucial experiment backfires, Doc Ock undergoes a terrible transformation into a monster, a multi-tentacled creature.
Though the CGI is better, it's the human story that sells the film to the mass audience. Alvin Sargent, the new writer, is more experienced and savvier than David Koepp, who scripted the first film. Sargent knows that the key to involvement is not in the set-pieces but in the characters and their relationships. Sargent is responsible for turning what's a decidedly male genre into a family film in which the women's roles, Aunty May and Mary Jane, are quite expanded. As a result, the actresses who play them (Rosemary Murphy and Dunst, respectively) shine, adding color to the plot.
Also better is the imaginatively drawn villain, who's more interesting than his predecessor. Willem Dafoe played the Green Goblin in a frightening but lugubrious manner. Among other things, Doc Ock is a formidable enemy because he can climb walls faster and better than Peter.
A more inventive actor than Dafoe, and endowed with a singular presence, Alfred Molina plays his wild part with the kind of relish that typifies great character actors. He brings a palpable reality and humor to the role of a misunderstood genius that's turned into a human-beast.
The whole film rests on the sustained build-up for the big climactic battle between Spider-Man and Doc Ock, which takes place on an elevated train crammed with passengers. In this long, scary sequence, the fight is so vigorous that Spider-Man gets unmasked; at the end of the film, Mary Jane also sees him hoodless.
Peter is a moral character who has to make tough choices. Torn about his purpose in life, with conflicts between ego and alter-ego, he's aware of the danger of turning his back on his special abilities: the web shooting, the wall climbing, his alert internal warning system. Peter craves for a quiet, normal life, but he can't deny his superhuman gifts. He struggles with “the gift and the curse” of his powers, the recognition that with great power also comes great responsibility, for which he may have to sacrifice his personal desires.
More than the first film, Spider-Man 2 stresses the isolation and loneliness that come with being a hero. Peter is tortured by his love for Mary Jane, but almost every romantic encounter is interrupted. Just when Peter pulls together the courage to kiss Mary Jane, a car is tossed through the window behind them.
Delving into the hero's moral problems elevates the movie above routine actioners. In fact, the duality motif dominates the whole text, not just the hero. Even the villain is divided against and within himself by failure to distinguish between greedy ambition and the use of science to serve humanity.
Like the first film, Spider-Man 2 is dragged down by a dull subplot (the only unsatisfying element), about Harry Osborn's obsession to avenge the death of his father, the Green Goblin. But director Sam Raimi compensates with wonderful visual and verbal gags, some at the expense of Peter the geek (taking a tumble in the street), and some at Maguire's real-life problems (like the actor's back injuries that almost prevented him from doing the picture).
There's also a playful allusion to the movie-fantasy Mary Poppins, when Aunt May uses an umbrella and is lifted by Doc Ock way up in the sky.
Spider- Man 2 also makes better use of New York City as a character, here depicted in bright colors, in sharp contrast to the dark nocturnal way it was drawn in the Batman movies. Among the various locations is the Wall Street area, which serves as the launch pad for the camera, which dips and swoops while recording Spider-Man's high-stakes aerial journeys up and down from rooftops, and in and out of skyscrapers.
Nonetheless, it's impossible in post-9/11 to watch any film set in Downtown Manhattan without thinking of the terrorists' attack, which lends the film yet another poignant element.
Considering the cynical and paranoid times we live in, our mistrust in heroes and community values, Spider-Man 2's ideology may be naive. After all, it's the story of a young man determined to use his strength to promote the welfare of the community at large. Talking to Peter, Aunt May, despite personal loss, sums up all those qualities conspicuously absent from American movies, such as gallantry, nobility, honesty, and fairness.
That said, it may be indicative of our zeitgeist that not a single character is happy, fulfilled, or balanced. Though a popcorn movie at heart, Spider-Man 2 is characterized by a mournful and soulful tone that makes it more relevant to contemporary audiences.
Ultimately, this may be the secret to the phenomenal success of the Spider-Man franchise.
Spider-Man, which grossed $820 million worldwide, is the fifth most popular movie in history, and Spider-Man 2 may come close to matching that figure. I have not doubts Sony is already working on Spider-Man 3.